The publication of two preliminary reports from the Washington DC commission investigating the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on targets in the United States has not only opened a number of new insights into potential terrorist risks in the future but also greatly enlarged our knowledge of the thinking and resources behind this and earlier atrocities.
The most striking piece of information to surface in the reports so far was that, far from being the most ambitious attack ever contemplated by a terrorist group, the 9/11 onslaught - which the commission estimates to have cost less than US$500,000 to mount but to have had an economic impact of US$95 billion - was, in fact, a much cut-down and delayed version of a planned assault in two hemispheres involving up to 10 hijacked aircraft. This project called for the same New York and Washington DC attacks, plus attacks on Congress and the CIA and FBI headquarters, but for these to be synchronised with hijackings deliberately aimed at the tallest buildings in California and Washington State, plus hijacking attacks in south-east Asia that would also be deliberately targeted on the tallest buildings for ease of target identification and maximum shock effect.
This horrifying plan - attributed in the commission's first report to the uncle of the planner of the unsuccessful 1993 World Trade Center bombing - together with an equally unsuccessful project to smuggle bombs aboard 12 US passenger aircraft and to detonate them over the Pacific Ocean, and a scheme to capture a launcher in Russia and force the crew to fire a missile at the US, and a plan to use poison gas on the Jewish population of Iran, originated in the fertile minds of the volunteers in the Al Qaeda 'training camps' that were at one time located in several countries around the world.
Through the inspired deployment of advanced technology, in conjunction with an unbreakable religious belief system and infinite patience, there can be no doubt that Al Qaeda has forced a rewrite of the book of terrorism. A generation separates the attempted 'bombings' by the IRA, using milk churns filled with fertiliser dropped from a hired helicopter, from the use of a wide-body jet as a guided missile, and in that time the scheming and execution of atrocities has leapt the technology barrier. For if any one element of the commission's analysis of the wider 9/11 plot has been, as some observers maintain, misinterpreted - because it construes the attack being on the US in the tradition of Pearl Harbor, instead of recognising that it was a symbolic attack on globalisation as a world economic system - then that element remains the ominous death sentence pronounced upon the skyscraper, not only in the tragedy of the iconic event of 9/11 itself, but in all the references to tall buildings and the ease of finding them from the air, that the commission noted in the originally planned atrocity. Take the fiery doom of the twin towers away from 9/11 and replay the drama with a couple of hijackings and two aircraft unable to find their targets.
For many reasons the likelihood of more aircraft suicide hijackings is difficult to predict, but the lesson of the 'alternative' use of civilian passenger aircraft demonstrated by the destruction of the twin towers in unlikely to have fallen on stony ground. When the final report of the commission looking into the events of 9/11 is published this month, it will be interesting to see if the point about Al Qaeda's emphasis on the 'usefulness' of tall buildings is taken any further.